In most major ballet companies (New York City Ballet, Houston, Paris Opera, etc.) there is a person or staff of people employed as the Ballet Masters. Each of them have a repertoire of ballets that they have either seen, danced in, or learned from the original choreographer. These ballet masters are responsible for keeping the ballet alive, preserving its original integrity, and teaching it to the next generation of dancers.
Spoiler alert: these people are Dramaturgs.
Because ballets are movement-based, it’s much harder to record them than it is to follow a script. Nowadays we can use video, but Ballet Masters came into being around the 1630s when that wasn’t an option. Choreographers were making innovations daily and discovering new ways to move/express things with the body, and what do you do if the choreographer of a piece dies or is no longer able to teach it? If we had just abandoned that ballet there would be no Nutcracker, no Giselle, or Swan Lake. Imagine a world without Shakespeare, Moliére, or Jarry! It was out of this need that the Ballet Master – the living script – was born.
Ballet Masters’ devotion to the ballets they oversee is the same as Dramaturgs’ devotion to playwrights. NYCB Ballet Master Jean-Pierre Frohlich said, “I’m in charge of a legacy. I am a messenger to the next generation,” and his coworker Kathleen Tracey adds “The integrity must be in tact. If the choreographer came walking into the studio, would they be happy with what they were seeing?” If a playwright came walking into the rehearsal room, would they be happy with what they were seeing? Sometimes we miss the mark and the answer is no, but it’s becoming more and more clear to me that the goal of a production should be to serve the play and playwright. If I’m twisting a production into something the play isn’t, I need to pick another play.
Ballet Masters and Dramaturgs are not research monkeys, in fact every Ballet Master I came across started out as a dancer. They describe their roles as babysitter, coach, mentor, psychologist… sound familiar? All terms we were throwing around just yesterday in our Into to Dramaturgy class.
So there’s parallels. Whatevs. Why do I care? I guess it’s exciting to me to see another career in the arts that’s self-made. Amanda Palmer has this great quote where she says, “When you’re an artist nobody ever tells you or hits you with the magic wand of legitimacy. You have to hit your own head with your own handmade wand.” That’s Dramaturgy. Hitting yourself with your own wand. That can be stressful! And lonely! I feel like no one is going to take me seriously. So when I see the NYCB which has 11 people on staff full-time hitting themselves with their own magic wands and getting paid for it… I’m heartened.
- the featured image of this post is of Jean-Pierre Frohlich of the NYCB in action.
- here is a link to a super cool profile of Ballet Masters at the NYCB: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AKNXtdjQNbc